In 1843, the German historian and theologian Bruno Bauer, wrote the polemical book, “The Jewish Question”, following strident demands by Jews for emancipation. He argued that Jews could achieve political emancipation only if they relinquish their religious consciousness, since political emancipation requires a secular state, which he assumed did not leave any “space” for social identities such as religion. Bauer contested the assumption that a people can seek emancipation based on religious particularism, while following the French Revolution, the world was moving in the direction of equal rights for all. In his response to the debate, Karl Marx queried the notion that one group could seek emancipation while the reality was that every group was in bondage.
The Igbos, we are told need emancipation from an oppressive Nigeria which has been oppressing and marginalizing them since independence. Karl Marx would ask them if all groups in Nigeria have not been oppressed and marginalised as well. In addition, he would point out what history has done to the Igbos since colonisation, transforming them from an egalitarian society to one of the most unequal societies in the world in which abject poverty cohabits with the opulence of some of the richest people in the contemporary world. I fear for a Biafra in which these two groups will confront each other. Above all, I fear for a Nigeria in which similar inequalities exist and the masses from all ethnic and religious groups have been systematically oppressed and marginalised since independence.
The current movement for Biafra is a very serious one because it represents a complete fracture between the Igbo elite and their masses. In the Internet, former Governor Peter Obi is accused of using Nigerian soldiers to massacre an estimated 5,000 militants of MASSOB in the period 2006 to 2009 under the direction of former President Olusegun Obasanjo who was said to have given the ‘Shoot-at Sight Order’. During the period, “Nigerian soldiers were said to have been on rampage at Onitsha, Nnewi, Oba, Ihiala and environs shooting, killing, and maiming anything that has a suspicion of being MASSOB.” If today the disaffected and poor Igbo youth, just like the Boko Haram fighters, are defining their governors and elite as central to the problem, there is no surprise that no one has a clue in terms of responding to Lenin’s question – what is to be done.
What the Igbo intellectual class has done is to develop a coherent marginalisation thesis, which the Igbo lumpen proletariat took and is running with. The thesis focuses on the issue of state creation, the Igbo presidency and the impact of the civil war. We recall Chinua Achebe’s book – “There Was a Country”, in which he made unambiguous comments of the complicity of the Nigerian state and its leaders at the time, Yakubu Gowon and Obafemi Awolowo in starving over two million Igbos to death, why should not be surprised that the Igbo youth are be furious at what was done to their grand parents. Why should they have listened to General Gowon when he responded denying the charges and claiming that it was Ojukwu who refused the offer of a humanitarian corridor? Even the number of two million starved to death, who is checking its veracity. Gowon’s “no victor, no vanquished” sounded generous but maybe all it did was block debate on the issue for too long.
There is no doubt that the civil war of 1967 to 1970 was the most serious threat to the existence of Nigeria as a country and it led to the loss of one to two million lives, depending on whose figure you accept. It should be recalled that just before the war, Western leaders had warned that if the East goes, the West will follow. That threat was not put into action and Awolowo, the Western leader was released from jail to serve as Finance Minister and Deputy Leader of the Federal Executive Council.
The fact of the matter is that the Igbo elite has a strong empirical basis to read Nigerian political history as one of failure and frustration for them. It’s a narrative that sees a proud and hard-working people, “the Jews of Africa”, that have been forced to play second fiddle to the other for too long, especially the Hausa-Fulani ruling circles. Following the coup and the subsequent massacre of Igbos in 1966 in the Northern region, and the subsequent declaration of secession by the Eastern region in May 1967, the Igbo elite had assumed that other Nigerians would not fight to keep them in the Federation. They were wrong. Other Nigerians fought to preserve the Federation and the result was the thirty-month civil war and the heavy death toll.
In his book, “Igbo Leadership and the Future of Nigeria” Arthur Nwankwo argues that “Nigerians of all other ethnic groups will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo”. Nwankwo tells us that the Igbos are more cosmopolitan, more adopted to other cultures, more individualistic and competitive, more receptive to change and more prone to settle and work in other parts of the country than other Nigerians. This reality, he says, is overshadowed by the myth other Nigerians persist in spreading that the Igbo are aggressive, arrogant and clannish. This purported attitude of other Nigerians towards the Igbos he points out has led to the development of a “final solution” aimed at neutralising and marginalising the Igbos after the civil war. This is seen to have occurred in two ways.
After the civil war, there was a coordinated policy of pauperising the Igbo middle class by the offer of a twenty-pound ex gratis award to all bank account holders irrespective of the amounts they had lodged with the banks before the civil war. This was followed by routing the Igbos from the commanding heights of the economy by introducing the indigenisation decree at a time when the Igbos had no money, no patronage and no access to loans to compete for the companies. In addition, landed property owned by the Igbo was declared to be “abandoned property” particularly in Port Harcourt. In the public service, the Igbo elite were marginalised by the refusal to re-absorb most of their cadres who had attained high positions in the armed forces and the federal public service.
It is in this context that many within the Igbo elite have come to understand the policies of “no victor, no vanquished” and “reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation” announced after the war, as a lie. There is room to debate these issues today as they feed into persistent demands for the creation of an additional state in the South East and the clamour for an Igbo Presidency, which increasingly appears to be a mirage. Of course since the end of the civil war, there has been a remarkable Igbo economic and commercial élan. The marginalisation did not work at the economic and commercial level and the success of the Igbo come back is one of the remarkable stories of our time. It might be precisely because of this success that bitterness persists among the Igbo elite on why other Nigerians appear to believe that they should continue with the politics of second fiddle. The problem has been that as they Igbo elite became more successful, they refused to change their narrative about the Nigerian State and today the initiative is out of their hands.
The biggest failure of the Igbo elite is the incapacity to play the political game. To be major players in politics requires team and coalition building. If the Igbo elite really wanted to get the presidency, they should have developed a more inclusive narrative about the Nigerian State, they needed to convince and reassure the others not frighten them about a revenge mission. Chinua Achebe hit the Yorubas very hard at a time he should have been thinking about an alliance with them to confront the North. Teaming up with Goodluck Jonathan produced petty rewards for a few but it rolled back the schedule for an Igbo Presidency. With this failure of the elite, the Igbo lumpen have seized the initiative of following the path of disintegration. Its time to talk frankly.
Jibrin Ibrahim, PhD, is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development
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